One of Swindon’s most remarkable buildings could be compulsorily purchased by the council and turned into an events venue.
At one of its few public meetings to go ahead, Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet will decide on Wednesday, March 25, whether to issue a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to acquire the Grade ll*-listed Mechanics’ Institute building which has been left to decay since it closed in 1986.
The building, which is owned by Forefront Estates Ltd, has been the centre of a long-running wrangle between the company and the council. It is the highest priority project in the council’s Heritage Action Zone which was launched last year in partnership with Historic England.
The Mechanics’ Institute was built by the Great Western Railway in 1855 to provide recreation and education for railway workers. It included a theatre and an extensive library. But closure of the railway works in the 1980s led to the abandonment of the building which is within the Railway Village, once home to GWR workers.
In January 2019, Cllr Dale Heenan, Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for the town centre, formed a group made up of heritage experts at Historic England and the Mechanics’ Institution Trust to try to resolve the issue.
A viability study by consultancy firm Fourth Street, funded by the Theatres’ Trust and the Architectural Heritage Fund, proposes a multi-purpose events venue as the best option for the building.
Cllr Heenan said: “The Mechanics’ was a key personal priority for me when I took over as cabinet member 18 months ago, and I must thank my colleagues for letting me go out on a limb to get this sorted. Good news – we have nearly cracked it.
“For the first time all of the right people are at the table collaborating and we can demonstrate that there is a sustainable future for one of Swindon’s most treasured assets.
“This will comprise a mixed-use facility that can accommodate a range of business, community and social functions such as weddings, proms, concerts, theatrical and other cultural uses. What’s more, there is a strategy to secure the necessary £24m for restoration.
“The Mechanics’ is a complex jigsaw – you work out which pieces have edges and join them, then slowly build up the picture. If you jump to trying to find the right pieces that fit in the centre of the picture, then you’ve made it ten times more difficult. There is a plan and we are following it.
“Thanks to the collective efforts of Historic England, the Mechanics’ Institute Trust, Theatres Trust and the council, I am pleased to recommend to cabinet a way forward for the Mechanics’, and that includes authorising council officers to prepare whatever is required for a Compulsory Purchase Order.”
Cllr Heenan added: “It’s important to stress that for the next stage, we must have a third party in place before the CPO occurs. If anyone is interested, please come forward and make yourself known.”
Fourth Street estimates it would take four and a half years to restore and convert the building which has been on the Theatres Trust’s Theatres at Risk register since 2006.
However there may be additional time needed to attract a new third party owner and to secure funding.
Rebecca Barrett, regional director for Historic England in the south west, said: “Through our Heritage Action Zone we have a crucial opportunity to make progress on a future for the Mechanics’ Institute.
“We know through experience that tackling historic buildings at risk takes partnership, imagination and perseverance. We have all of those in Swindon, with the right people around the table, all committed to finding a long term solution for this remarkable Grade II* listed building.
“We will continue to work with the council over the coming months to work up a robust plan to help bring the Mechanics’ Institute back to life.”
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